We put our books and picnic lunch and thermos in a small back pack that I slung over my shoulder. We left by the kitchen door. The heavy mist that rolled up and over the rear wall of the hacienda filled the back and both side yards and beyond. “Is it always like this?”
“Yes, but once we get on the path down to the selva, the mist is much lighter.”
We left through the rear gate. Creepers with their prickly vines and blood red flowers grew in a thick tangle over the ground, and pushed against the rear wall. They had been recently hacked back, but El Paradiso seemed under attack by the relentless regrowth.
I followed Alma. The heat and humidity increased the further we descended. We stopped and looked up when we heard the growling and demonic calls and grunts of a few howler monkeys. They crashed about overhead in the trees; mothers snatched up their babies, and in no time the troupe was out of sight. The same with the parrots and toucans and other small brightly colored birds, they quickly flew away in all directions at our approach.
I was a little uneasy but Alma led us on with great confidence. The jungle floor was thick with dead leaves. I flinched and froze when a foot long centipede scurried over the toe of my boot and disappeared into the leaf litter. A column of carpenter ants each with a bit of leaf or insect part hoisted high, made their way up and over and around a fantastic construction of roots that supported the gargantuan trees.
The path leveled out and the trees were tall and slender and leafy only at their tops. Bamboo grew alongside all types of grasping plants that competed for the sun. I perspired and swatted away the insects that darted and buzzed around my eyes and ears. The air was spiced with the sweet smell of blooms and buds and fruit in different stages of life and decay. We stopped.
Alma’s expression was serene and her skin sparkled with droplets of sweat. “We should come across a little stream further along. We can follow that to the place I want to show you.”
“Is it much further?” I asked. Everywhere I looked seemed the same. The path we were on wound about and twisted so many times I had no idea how to get back, other than to head up hill.
She looked over her shoulder at me. She must have noticed my trepidation because she gave me an encouraging smile. “Come on. You’re safe, you’re with me. I promise not to get us lost.”
“How do you know where you’re going?”
“I’ve been here before; it’s not that difficult if you are aware. Come on, it’s not too much farther.”
We followed the stream for another twenty minutes. I had to keep up as Alma gracefully surmounted the rocks and boulders that blocked the path and with the grace of a dancer she stepped from tree root to tree root without hesitation or care. She stopped and waited for me to catch up. We squeezed in between three gigantic boulders and when we came out the other side we stood before a beautiful pool. Crystal water tumbled down the opposite bank and onto a stair step rock formation. I ran my fingertips in the current. The water was almost the same temperature as the air. A large, flat, boulder rose from the center of the pool. It reminded me of an island. Not more than a few steps in, the water became waist deep. The bottom was strewn with mossy green stones.
“This is beautiful, Alma.” I wiped the sweat from my brow onto the back of my hand.
She sat on a rock and pulled off her boots. “It is certainly hot.” Her face was high pink and strands of hair lay plastered against her temples and the back of her neck. She removed her socks next then stood and unbuttoned her jeans. I got to my feet.
“What are you doing?” I made sure to keep eye contact when I asked.
“It’s hot. I’m going for a swim,” She gave a quizzical smile, “What did you think?”
“I…I don’t know.” I stammered. I thought of Leòn squatting with his hands over his face pleading with Alvarez, standing over him with his .357 Magnum. I tried to save the moment, “Au natural?” I said as cavalier as I could.
“If I were alone, I wouldn’t give it a second thought. Would it bother you if I did?”
That baser me wanted to see her naked, I imagined my hands all over her, feeling her hair against my cheek and my arms around her, holding her tight. I honestly didn’t know what the person I wanted to be would think. “It’s up to you.”
She let her jeans fall to her knees and stepped out of them. Alma unbuttoned her blouse, slipped it over her arms and put it next to her pants and socks. She looked over at me. “You have seen a naked woman before, haven’t you?”
I had averted my eyes. I even held my hand up. I must have looked like a clown trying not to look. “Of course.”
“Well, there are two things you might do. Leave me alone to my swim or join me.”
I suppose I shouldn’t have been too surprised. Alma told me she let Alvarez undress and bath her. If nudity didn’t bother her, why should it bother me? Even though, I still felt a little strange being on such intimate footing with this person I hardly knew.
“Too bad we’re the only animal that feels shame for being naked.” At this point Alma looked out on the water and unhooked her bra and set it on top of her other clothing. She sat, rolled her underwear down her thighs, over her knees and slipped them over her ankles. Alma leaned back on her elbows, closed her eyes and let the sun shine on her. “God, this feels good. I’d walk around naked if I could. I used to when I was a little girl, anyway.”
There was something innocent and natural in the way she spoke and what she said that put my mind at rest and erased any inkling of temptation. “I’ll join you.”
Alma slipped into the pool and had already waded in up to her waist. She put her arms ahead of her and dove under. While I undressed I watched Alma break the surface, her body glistened with water droplets as she gracefully rolled into a back stroke. She kicked her feet and came close to the rock I was standing on and looked up at me with inviting eyes.
“Come on in,” she rolled back over and dove under again.
I waded out up to my waist, pushed off and did the breast stroke around the large flat rock in the center of the pool. I looked up. Alma had already climbed up on the rock and was lying down. I pulled myself out of the water and lie down next to her and closed my eyes. The rock was warm. The trees around the pool afforded some swaying shadows which made lying there comfortable.
“This is the real paradise, not up there on the plateau.”
We laid there enjoying the sound of the rushing water, the caress of the breeze and the warmth of the sun.
“How did you find this place?” I asked.
“I followed Leòn down the path one day when I was bored. I thought I was being so clever. I stayed just far enough behind so I wouldn’t be seen. Hèctor warned me to stay out of the selva, that it was too dangerous. But I wanted to have a little adventure. It was such a gorgeous day. I remember we just had our daily downpour and the grass and all the leaves sparkled with raindrops. Leòn moved so quickly and I fell behind. It wasn’t too long before I was lost. I called out.”
“I certainly see how you can lose your way.” I turned my head and saw Alma still had her eyes closed and her face toward the sun. I propped my head in the palm of my hand and took in her entirety; her profile, the way the lively shadow prints danced on her pale skin, and perfection of her naked body, on down to her toes. Alma was no longer so mysterious. She was just another human being lying next to me under a beautiful sky on a beautiful day. At that moment I felt like a little boy. I sank back down and closed my eyes again.
“Leòn found me a few minutes later. He just shook his head and smiled and told me to stay close. We wound up at the pool. I watched as he carefully chose and picked leaves from certain plants and put them in his pouch. I asked what he was doing. He wouldn’t tell me. All the while he picked the leaves he softly chanted in a monotone the same words over and over again.
“When I asked, he told me he was thanking the selva and the plants. On our return to the main path he showed me the landmarks he used to find his way. Once I knew what to look for I became more confident. I went with him a dozen more times or so. Each time we went he gathered his leaves and herbs and told me about the trees and plants and animals. I feel comfortable here. Before, when Hèctor would go out on the plateau, I would mope around and wait for him to come back. Sometimes he would be gone for the better part of a week. Now when he’s gone, I come down here.
“If it wasn’t for Leòn, I think I would have gone mad. He was very kind to me, and he is wise beyond his years. One day after Hèctor left for the groves I went with Leòn much further into the selva, quite a distance past the pool. We kept up a hurried pace for a good long while. We came to a clearing. I saw a large thatched hut. Naked little boys and girls ran out to greet us. They surrounded me and reached up and touched my arms and face and hair. I followed Leòn into the hut. The women who sat around the small fire rings looked at me wide eyed, one, her mouth agape. They whispered in excited tones. I didn’t understand their language. The eldest, who was bare breasted and missing her front teeth, approached Leòn and put her hands on his chest and pushed him toward the opening. She kept repeating the same phrase louder and louder, glaring over at me and then glaring at Leòn. The others also stood and joined the old woman. I figured it was because of me. I was frightened and I ran out of the hut. Leòn came out a minute later.
“’What’s the matter?’ I asked him. He said they thought I was a spirit. They thought Leòn brought me back from the nether world. He assured them I was as alive as they were. He called them out of the hut. They walked around me; some pinched me up and down. They weren’t trying to hurt me. Another one tugged on my hair, a few others gave me little slaps all over my body. I looked over to Leòn. He told me to be calm that they would stop. They gave me hugs and affectionate caresses. I felt really at peace, like I belonged with them. They are truly children of Nature. Everything they need is all around them. They really want for nothing. It’s funny, all the things that I thought were so important to have, now, have no value to me. Hèctor was going to be away for the week. I stayed with the people, they only have one description for themselves, and that’s, ’The People.’ I stayed with them for three days and nights.”
I was going to ask why she didn’t leave Hèctor, when my eye caught a movement on the other side of the pool near the little waterfall. I grabbed Alma’s wrist. Whatever it was, it was big. The plants and bushes stirred when it moved. “Alma, Alma,” I whispered.
She opened her eyes. I signaled for her to be quiet and pointed across the pool to the little waterfall. Alma rolled on her side and we waited. A jaguar came to the edge of the pool, looked around and began to drink. Alma watched. My heart was racing.
“What should we do?” I whispered trying not to show my panic.
She smiled, “Nothing, she’s thirsty, that’s all.”
“Will it come after us?”
“No, she won’t come after us, she has no reason to. Just enjoy watching her, she is a beautiful creature, don’t you think?”
We were maybe seven or eight meters away. I hoped Alma was right about the jaguar not coming after us. The cat was beautiful with the way her shadow markings lay against her blond undercoat. When she finished her drink she looked straight at us. Her golden eyes were fierce and penetrating. Her rasping growl and throaty exhalations sent a shiver of fear through me. I grabbed Alma’s wrist tighter.
She put her other hand on top of mine. “Emilio, don’t worry, I know this jaguar, she will not hurt you, ever.”
The cat caught an interesting scent and moved back into the undergrowth. I was glad when the leaves and fronds wiggled as she disappeared into the selva.
“My wrist, please?” Alma said with a smile as she gently twisted it loose from my grip.
I immediately let go. “I’m so sorry.”
She wrinkled her nose, “Well, you’re forgiven,” and continued in a good natured tone, “let’s go, I’m pretty hungry, are you?”
We waded across the pool and dressed. As I laced my boots Alma sat next to me. She leaned against my shoulder. “You shouldn’t be afraid of the selva.”
We spent the rest of the day at the pool. After lunch Alma picked some flowers and made two garlands. I wore one around my neck and the other she put in her hair. We sat cross-legged and read our favorite poems. She introduced me to the French poet, Leconte de Lisle. She read the first stanza of the poem:
‘The Jaguar’s Dream’
“Beneath the dark mahoganies, creepers in flower
Hang in the heavy, motionless, fly-filled air,
Twining among the tree-stumps, falling where,
They cradle the brilliant parrot, the quarreller,
The wild monkeys, spiders with yellow hair.
There the wearied, ominous horse-killer,
The ox-slayer, returns with a steady tread,
Over the dead mossy trunks of old timber.”
She closed the little volume. “The poet must have known the selva, he understood, he understood how it feels.” She opened the book and continued:
“Stretching, arching his muscular loins, a breath
From his gaping muzzle heavy with thirst
Issues with a sudden shock, quick and harsh,
And great lizards warm from the noon heat stir,
Then vanish gleaming through the tawny grass.
Veiled from the sun in a hollow of the forest,
He sinks down; stretched out on a level stone,
Cleans his paw with a broad lick of his tongue
Blinks golden eyes dull with sleepiness;
And, as his inert forces, in imagination
Make his tail flicker and his flanks quiver,
Dreams himself deep in some green plantation,
Leaping, and plunging dripping claws forever
Into bullocks’ flesh as they bellow and shiver.”
I was stunned by the power of the words. “That’s quite a poem.”
“Yes, the first time I read it, that night I dreamed of being a jaguar.” Alma stretched her arms out in front of her and rubbed her cheek on her shoulder.
We dallied a bit longer until the afternoon clouds appeared. We had an hour’s walk ahead of us, so we decided to return to the hacienda. The air was still and humid. The heat became oppressive. We were both sweating. Alma suddenly stopped. She turned to me and pointed, then whispered, “Did you hear that?”
I cocked my ear in the direction she pointed and strained to hear.
“A pecarì, no three, a mother and her little ones,” she whispered.
I looked again, but couldn’t see or hear anything. Alma took my forearm and pulled me close. This time when she pointed I saw something, a round little shadow moving behind a fern. In another minute the three wild pigs appeared, and just as she said, a mother and her two little ones.
“How can you do that?” Alma amazed me.
“I don’t know, it just seems to happen.” I noticed a bewildered tone in her voice.
“That’s quite a talent.” She didn’t respond. We walked quietly back to the main path. A light rain began to fall, and a cool breeze rolled down from the plateau and grew steadily stronger. The last bit of the trek was more difficult than I thought it would be as the breeze turned into gusts of wind. When we reached the back gate I was panting. Once inside the rear yard we ran to the kitchen door. We got to the veranda just before the rain really began to pour.